Mr. Francis sped all the way from Katunayake to Colombo, via the towns of Ja-Ela and Wattala. He knew that there was not much to be seen in a mere three hours but since that was the most I had (for I did not want to miss dinner), speeding through the narrow, almost organic trunk roads leading to Colombo seemed to be the only option.
"This is Hilton and the World Trade Centre", he said proudly. Into the central business district of Colombo, I can't help but feel the resemblance of this city to New Delhi, or even our very own Kuala Lumpur. From the colonial architecture to the humidity, it was as if I've never left home. But of course, we definitely have more traffic lights and a much better transport system. It grew darker as we approached the coast. Passing through a handful of expensive hotels including the Taj, Holiday Inn and the regal Galle Face, which Mr. Francis termed as "for the Caucasians", we've reached Galle Face Green, an expansive piece of land, not unlike the Dataran Merdeka or the Padang in Singapore. This was the place for hawker food and kite flying, among others but is now apparently closed to the public due to the threatening terrorist activities in the past. With the Taj overlooking the Green, our conversation also included the recent terror attack in Mumbai and agreed that closing the Green may not be such a bad idea afterall. Mr. Francis joked about sneaking me in since tourists are sometimes allowed to enter but the thunderous sound of waves was calling me from the other side.
We hoped to catch the view of the Indian Ocean during sunset. The traffic was unforgiving and before we could find a parking space, the sun was already down. It was rather a consolation that we've actually found a parking space in this hugely congested tourist spot, across the road, near Holiday Inn, thanks to Mr. Francis' friend. In fact, at every corner, we bumped into at least one of his friends and for some strange reason, they were surprised to learn that this guy was from Malaysia and not Japan.
Enjoying the breeze, our conversation was kept minimal. The crowd was overwhelming (or should I say overflowing) but lighting was scarce. Shoulder-to-shoulder in the dark, it may not be the ideal way of appreciating the greatness of the Indian Ocean but it did open up my perspective to the diversity of this city. From veiled Muslim women to the typical fashionable Sinhalese youth, and coupled with the explanation from the guide, it was a brief demographic lesson I truly enjoyed.
Passing through the Fort and the harbour, we've come to the Gangaramaya Temple, which stood for almost 300 years. It's a Buddhist temple that is on every visitor's list.
Somewhat oriental, thanks to the welcoming Heavenly Guards protecting the gates of the temple, it was again, not unlike the Buddhist temples in South East Asia. What distinguishes Sri Lankan temples from the others is the white dome which is usually gilded (like in Thailand and Cambodia, for example). Into the main temple, the sculptures were absolutely fascinating. If the previous visit to the Sistine Chapel had me raving about the artistic ways of the Roman Catholics and appreciating the beauty of Christianity, the Gangaramaya has given me a glimpse of nirwana and the teachings of Buddha, simply through the endless, beautiful statues and paintings.
When Mr. Francis asked if I had enough of the temple, I wished I could say no as there was just so much to see and learn but looking at my watch, I knew it was time to leave as the journey back to the hotel takes about 45 minutes. I certainly didn't want to miss my flight.
On our way back, Mr. Francis showed me areas of the Malay (which I thought he had mistaken for Muslim earlier) and mosques. Here, Islam is very much practiced and I wished I had taken a picture of the majestic Pettah Mosque which was very much similar to St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow, in terms of architecture. We talked more about religions and how Sri Lankans are able to accept and respect the beliefs of others. True enough, the statues of Jesus Christ were placed along the same road as Lord Buddha's. And Mr. Francis, whom had a cross hanging in his car, touched the feet of the monk in Gangaramaya. Sometimes, all it takes is a little respect and we'll have less problems in this world. Shouldn't we be tackling global warming instead?
There were checkpoints along the way. Mr. Francis said that this was a good way to prevent rebels from havocking the city. Inspections were thorough, especially if there were local occupants in the vehicles. In his own words, "soldiers are good. yes, very good". I must say serious-looking, camouflaged men carrying rifles can be very intimidating to say the least. But the helpless me can only hope for the best for myself, and Sri Lanka.
My biggest regret was not having a true Sri Lankan meal when I was there. The dinner was provided by the airline and leant towards the western side, perhaps to suit the tastebuds of international travellers. Still, fried aubergine with dhal sauce and spiced rice with roasted chicken, among others, made up a delicious and sumptuous meal that I liked, especially after an action-packed three hours around Colombo.
Minutes before leaving the Gangaramaya, Mr. Francis asked if I would like to have a talisman from the temple as a form of protection or just a souvenir to keep. I'm not quite sure why I hesitated but when the monk spoke to me and said that it will help me on my journey, I felt (in a state of lost in transition) the connection with the talisman and in a very interesting way, hoped that it will grant me a safe journey ahead, whether to my next destination or just in life.
Yes, hope. Whether in form of a talisman or not, is a great booster that drives us to where we want to be.
For now, I hope for peace in the beautiful Sri Lanka and a good year ahead for everyone.
Oh, and I certainly hope to visit Kandy next time.